EMPLOYEE FREE CHOICE ACT OF 2007--MOTION TO PROCEED --
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Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, we are here today to bring a long overdue measure of fairness to a system that because of years of powerful opposition and millions of dollars spent remains rigged against the American worker.
Today, it is simply too difficult for workers to claim their legal right to join a union and too easy for employers to prevent them from doing so. This is no accident, and it must change.
Throughout our history, it is the labor movement above all else which has stood up as the driving force in support of working Americans, a gateway to the middle class. So much of what we take for granted today--the 5-day workweek, paid vacations, pensions, health insurance didn't happen by accident; they became reality because people in organized labor were willing to fight, willing to march, and sometimes willing to die to stand up for the rights of the American worker.
But the work of making America a little bit more fair and a little bit more just isn't over--and once again to achieve another milestone we must stand with labor over the objections of powerful corporate opposition.
As a cosponsor and strong supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act of 2007, I urge my colleagues to vote for cloture to pass this important legislation and continue the march of progress in this century which organized labor began in the last one.
In 1935 Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, NLRA, historic legislation that marked the first time the Federal Government recognized collective bargaining as a right for workers. Employees won the right to organize and a legal forum to settle disputes with management, air grievances, and generally improve workplace standards.
This 1935 law represented a tremendous breakthrough for workers, but its unintended consequences have worked to undo its basic promise that when a majority of workers want to join a union, they have the right to do so.
Unfortunately, the union recognition process today allows antiunion employers to stall both the organizing and bargaining process for months and even years--opening up the door for the very abuses the NLRA explicitly seeks to prevent.
First, once workers decide and demonstrate that they would like to unionize, our current system offers employers a window of time in which to lobby, cajole, and otherwise pressure them not to do so before holding a surreptitious secret vote. When presented with signatures from a majority of employees, employers can call for a secret election--delaying the process and creating a window of opportunity during which employers can hire antiunion consultants, conduct an unlimited number of employee meetings, and bar labor representatives from the workplace.
Second, under the current rules, there are too few penalties to dissuade companies from taking illegal actions far beyond the questionable practices permissible under the NLRA. Facing light penalties, companies make a rational calculation that it is cheaper to violate labor laws and be punished than it is to follow them.
In 2005, the National Labor Relations Board, NLRB, reported that 31,000 workers were disciplined or fired for union activity. Studies show that employees are fired in one-quarter of all organizing campaigns and that one in five workers who openly advocate for a union during an election campaign is fired.
The odds are stacked against workers: when they present a majority, their employers are given every chance to dissuade them from unionizing. When employers cross these already generous lines and break the law, they are not held to account.
The Employee Free Choice Act of 2007 brings the letter of the law in line with the spirit of the law. It takes practical measures to protect and deliver what is supposedly already guaranteed: workers' right to organize.
The bill requires the NLRB and businesses to recognize a union when a majority of employees have signed their names to authorization cards and presented them to the National Labor Review Board. It also requires a binding arbitration process if an employer and a new union cannot reach agreement on an initial contract, empowers the NLRB to enforce compliance with the law in Federal court, and levies substantial fines on employers that engage in union-busting activities.
This legislation is about fundamental fairness. Millions of Americans want to join a union and ought to be able to, but can't. Just ask John Elia of Melrose, MA, field technician for Verizon who wants to organize his unit within the Communication Workers of America. John has been trying for months to get Verizon to recognize the union authorization cards he and the majority of his coworkers have signed. He even handed the signed cards to Verizon's CEO Ivan Seidenberg and asked him to accept them, but he was refused. Earlier this year, Congressman STEPHEN LYNCH, Congressman JOHN TIERNEY, Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, and I publicly verified the field technician's authorization cards and called on Verizon to recognize them but we were refused as well.
John Elia wants what every worker wants--better pay, decent health care, a stable retirement plan, and real job security. Research shows that unionized workers are paid 30 percent more than nonunion workers, 92 percent of unionized workers have some health care coverage, and three out of four have defined benefit retirement plans--compared to just one in six nonunion members. No wonder a majority of Americans say they would join a union if they could.
This bill is especially timely because the Bush administration has rolled back the clock on worker rights and created an atmosphere that has emboldened many employers to engage in the kind of illegal activity that this bill would help end. For instance, Wal-Mart has been known to shut down stores and relocate them with different employees to prevent them from organizing. The Employee Free Choice Act would require the country's biggest employer to finally recognize its employees' right to form unions and bargain for better pay and benefits.
Opponents of this bill including the Chamber of Commerce want us to believe that instant card check recognition is undemocratic and will hurt businesses. In fact, it fulfills the promise of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 by ensuring that a majority organizing vote will be honored. What is more democratic than honoring the wishes of the majority? Doubters at the Chamber of Commerce may also want to talk to cell phone provider Cingular, which has voluntarily agreed to honor instant card check unionization. Cingular reported $9 billion in revenue and a record $782 million fourth quarter profit in 2006. It hardly seems to be struggling under the weight of its unions.
Mr. President, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, let me assure you that this bill is not bad for small businesses. It is aimed at large businesses that engage in union-busting, something small businesses cannot afford to do. In fact, 20 million out of America's 26 million small businesses don't have any employees.
We must restore balance to a broken labor system that breeds resentment on both sides. We must do so most of all so that millions of Americans see their hard work translate into a better standard of living. I urge my colleagues to support cloture so that we can improve conditions for hardworking Americans everywhere.